The Shortest Distance Between Two Points

astronaut-0516Although it’s verity has long since been debunked, there’s a popular adage about how during the height of the Cold War and the Space Race, NASA spent millions developing a ballpoint pen that could write in zero gravity, while Soviet Cosmonauts just used a pencil.

Regardless, the moral of the story as I’ve always applied it to AV installs is that innovation is great, but what AV Pros actually get paid for is a working installation. Regardless of features, interfaces, and hot-topic buzzwords just clients just want their systems to work.

There are two kinds of AV pro, in my experience: enthusiastic technophiles and reluctant adopters. It’s mostly a generational thing, and more often than not, the enthusiastic techophiles are new to the business, shiny and keen. That shininess wears off after a few years. Sadder, but wiser, veteran AV pros learn, often through painful experience, to not confuse the sizzle for the steak.

Hands up everyone who’s ever been dazzled by cool technology, and was bursting at the seams to jam as much of it into your client’s home as possible. I’m guilty, on all charges.

The common thread in most repeatable, reliable systems is simplicity. I was trained according to the premise that good system design follows from having the minimum number of boxes and wires necessary to achieve the system’s required functionality.

The fewer links in the chain, the fewer the number of things that can go wrong. It also helps if a system uses the absolute minimum number of brands, which is part of the reason why automation vendors offer a breadth of hardware solutions: the assurance that the selected gear will play well with others.

By the same token, simplicity in system configuration means that when it’s time to troubleshoot for bugs (and there will almost always be bugs), there are fewer individual checklist items that require testing. With added complexity, when debugging a new system, you run the risk of getting caught up in overly complicated workarounds that cost too much time and money relative to execute. Call me crazy, but I still think that finishing a system on time and on budget is what makes the difference between being a profitable company and puttering around so much that it’s really just a hobby.

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On the topic of problem solving, don’t get bogged down in solutions that create more work than they solve. The cardinal rules of troubleshooting should always be observed, which is that the problem must be repaired, and that future foreseeable problems have been prevented. But the best solution is the one that does all that while costing the least amount of time and money to implement.

Switching analogies from the Soviets to Ancient Greece: Consider Alexander the Great and the Gordian Knot.
Instead of trying to untangle the knot, he cut it in half with his sword.

Here’s my favorite example of simple and direct: Years ago on one project we installed over a dozen wireless music zones. The client’s 2.4 GHz cordless phone was interfering with the zone players, a problem we had never encountered before.

What was the solution? Sending a technician to Costco and buying the client a different brand of cordless phone. Total cost: $150, plus driving time. And it worked perfectly!

Cleverness, resourcefulness and a dogged approach to problem solving are laudable. But that doesn’t mean making things complicated. Keep it simple, and remember that the client just wants it all to work.